Adaptation is the key to a thriving visitor economy

by Jeremy Sampson, CEO, Travel Foundation

Many DMOs are searching for a new model as they emerge from the COVID rubble and start to think of building back for the longer term. Some leaders in our sector have brought out strategies announcing a “stewardship” approach but are now realising more fundamental change is needed to enable their destinations to thrive in the 21st Century.

As the sector recovers from the travel restrictions of the pandemic, those DMOs that are leading tourism’s evolution understand that it is neither desirable nor possible to go back to business as usual.  Many are now seeking a new model for tourism that avoids the mistakes of the past, addresses future risks and confronts some of the industry’s biggest, most persistent challenges, such as seasonality, economic leakage, low margins, overcrowding and inequality and, of course, climate change.  What DMOs need now is innovation, new measures of success, meaningful collaboration, and new skill sets such as climate action planning, financing and risk profiling. 

The Travel Foundation carried out a landmark report with Cornell University and EplerWood International, released in 2019, entitled ‘Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism’. The report exposed the hidden costs of tourism, such as increased waste and water-use, rising cost of living, loss of biodiversity, increased infrastructure and maintenance costs and more.  All too often these costs are not well understood or are left unaccounted for, leaving local residents to pick up the bill, or leading to the degradation of resources and places. 

The invisible burden of tourism is shifting

The invisible burden might lead to the protests of residents, angry at the rising cost of living and deteriorating quality of life, and to tides of plastic pollution washed up on beaches, caused in part by poor waste management. There are also many examples that go unreported, or are less obvious. In Cancun, for example, following its development as a beach resort, only 30% of sewage in the region was treated leaving contaminated water to flow directly into the groundwater, sea and the region’s fragile cenotes (underground lakes).  Since then, a tourism tax of 224 pesos (approx. €10) has been introduced to bring in additional endowments for social development and biodiversity support to the coast.

During the travel restrictions of the pandemic, the Invisible Burden of tourism did not simply disappear but shifted and many outdoor destinations were hit particularly hard by spikes in visitor numbers.  In Tahoe, for example, visitor numbers continued to increase due to a rise in domestic tourism, putting added pressure on the region and contributing to further house price increases which have doubled since 2008. A recent community report shows residents cited the same issues to improve quality of life, all of which have connections to tourism: housing, transportation, tourism management, community infrastructure, short-term lets, and charges on tourists. Recognising the need for change, Tahoe is now working with the Travel Foundation and other organisations to create a destination stewardship plan that puts residents needs at its centre. “The way people access and rely on public lands is changing. In everything from hiking to skiing we are welcoming new and more diverse users, sometimes in growing numbers,” said Erick Walker, Forest Supervisor, USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “Now is the time for us to come together to learn how we can better coordinate and improve the whole picture.”

Similarly, in Canada, Vancouver Island became a hotspot for domestic tourism, with visitor numbers increasing 20% in August 2020 compared to the previous year. Recently, Tourism Vancouver Island, or 4VI as it is now called, has made a bold shift to operate as a social enterprise, reflecting the broader trend amongst leading DMOs towards managing tourism with the primary goal of delivering positive social impact. “The travel and tourism industry has been forever changed by the pandemic,” according to Anthony Everett, President & CEO, 4VI. “We are making an industry-leading transition that will allow us to be Vancouver Island’s respected tourism advisors known for investing profits into powering the stewardship of our destination and our home.”

Prioritising public-private partnerships

It’s not just DMOs that are seeking a new approach; companies are also looking to redefine their relationship with destinations, and it is through new forms of public-private collaboration where the necessary innovation will come. For instance, we have been working with the tour operator easyJet holidays in five of their most popular destinations to assess the most significant impacts of tourism generally (not just from their own operations). By bringing both public and private organisations together, the tour operator is helping to create a shared agenda and discovering opportunities for pre-competitive collaboration that will make the destination as a whole more competitive. As Garry Wilson, the CEO of easyJet holidays, explains, “There is a responsibility for us all to play our part to reopen tourism sustainably and we absolutely need to, and can, work together.”

As another demonstration of a shared agenda between public organisations and private companies, it is hugely significant that the Glasgow Declaration for Climate Action in Tourism was launched at COP26 in November 2021. This UN-backed initiative was the first major tourism-wide attempt to align the sector behind action on climate change. Over 500 organisations have signed up to take action, including most recently travel giants, Expedia and Booking Holdings. The Travel Foundation is now working with the UNWTO to build the momentum of the Declaration and support organisations to take action.

The time is now

It is possible that we are now reaching a tipping point where it is becoming harder to return to old models and easier to adapt instead.  Many of the drivers of change that were already present before the pandemic have been supercharged in the past two years. This includes growing pressure from investors and shareholders keen to transition to a fairer and greener tourism economy, driven in part by concern about the increasing liability of carbon-heavy industries. There have also been numerous surveys that highlight that consumer attitudes are changing and that this is beginning to affect behaviour.  In a recent survey, 71% of global travellers reported a desire to travel more sustainably in the coming 12 months, up 10% on the previous year. 

As all these drivers and societal changes align, we have a genuine, once in a generation opportunity to reset tourism and create a more resilient, kinder and better model. Right now, we need collaboration between ‘placemakers’ and between the public and private sectors; we need to adopt new measures of success that move away from simply counting tourism numbers and we must listen to the voices of residents and engage our communities in tourism plans and management. A new online course is being developed in partnership with Cornell University to equip destination professionals with the knowledge and skills they urgently need. 

Over the course of this decade, the interests of destinations and commercial competition will converge meaning that those who adapt soonest, embrace change, optimise the value of tourism and work together to combine resources are likely to benefit the most. 

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